Saturday, July 5, 2014

Reflections on Design Thinking Institute

The is my second blog post reflecting on my experience with the Design Thinking Institute I just attended at The Nueva School. My first blog post on the various icebreakers they used to get us in the right frame of mind is here.

So I won't go into too much detail of what the entire design thinking (DT) process entails, cause it would be impossible to summarize a four day conference like this. There are overviews out there: here and here, and even a TED talk about it. The basic idea is that the designers identify users, research their needs, generate many ideas to address an identified underlying need, prototype one or more of these ideas, get feedback and refine the prototypes, reflect on the feedback and prototypes and make improvements.

Short Version

Long version

You know it's design thinking when there are a lot of post-it notes involved.


Post-its danced through my dreams by the end of the conference.

The idea for how this applies to education is that this process can be taught to students as a way of framing long-term projects that have application to the real world. For example, students can be asked to design a new playground for their school, design a utopian society, design a catapult, design a way to conserve water, design a way to promote peace in the world, etc. Ideally, projects would connect several disciplines and also tie into something to which the students are connected or care about, allowing them to develop creativity and ownership of the solution process. Other key aspects of the design thinking process emphasize empathy (both for the product's users and for teammates when working with others on a project), thinking outside the box, learning by doing, persevering past obstacles, valuing intuition and informal approaches to learning, and communication skills.

Design thinking in schools looks kind of like this. 

I found it to be a really exciting way to frame projects that is flexible enough to accommodate many different curricula, grade levels, and students. It's easy to use aspects of the process, such as researching or prototyping or reflecting on your progress or brainstorming ideas, and have students focus on learning how to do one or more of them as part of one's curriculum. Ideally, studens would eventually go through the full process to get the full benefits of this type of approach. I also feel like I learned a lot about motivation and how to structure projects while still giving kids independence and ownership of the process. Seeing kids present their ideas with confidence and passion really sold me on the benefits of design thinking as a model. I also see a lot of overlap with the Maker Movement.

I was personally challenged during this conference by having to actually get my hands dirty and make things, which I am not used to doing. There are definitely a lot of connections to math teaching in terms of how we want kids to approach open-ended problems, trying things out and reflecting on how they're working, convincing others that their approach works, and the focus on perseverance and ownership. I talked with a few math teachers about the word "prototype" - it can just refer to "hypothesis" or "idea about an approach or answer" and that in math, we're constantly having students prototype, test, get feedback, revise, and improve.

I do have some hesitation about the fact that part of the design thinking process is that neither the teacher nor the students should have a predetermined solution (or set of solutions) that they are trying to reach. Authentic design thinking is supposed to be about the process and can't be directed towards a known goal. This is a bit tricky in mathematics, where my curriculum IS driven by specific content and I write problems and tasks with particular mathematics content in mind that I want to explore or teach. Not to say that I never give very open problems, but that can't be the case very often or we will not accomplish the learning objectives of the course. In addition, requiring the existence of actual users and a product of some sort constrains the topics to ones that have real-world connections. While I value real-world connections, my favorite math is the kind that is purely a construct in our minds and beautiful because it has absolutely nothing real about it. I don't want to lose sight of mathematics that is abstract and removed from real-life considerations. Abstract math can still lend itself to deep investigations and some aspects of design thinking, but I'm not sure that it can be fully incorporated into the design thinking framework.

Resources for Design Thinking:

The Nueva School is also working on creating a website that will organize some of the resources out there and create a space for teachers to upload their design thinking projects for feedback and use by other teachers. I'll update here when their site becomes available.


  1. Related but different, my most memorable teaching experience was on a two person team in 7th grade where we operated a business modeled after Junior Achievement. Since this was all done out of the school day we needed to focus on a product that we could resell instead of designing and manufacturing something new. We sold reusable bags just before they became popular, and taught it in such a way that we made deep connections to every core subject. It's all here if you want to take a look.

    1. Very cool! It looks like you were able to bring in many curricular subjects in an engaging way. How did the students like the project?